Why is Puerto Rico blocking release of its pre-hurricane disaster plan?

Register now

WASHINGTON – The territorial government of Puerto Rico is blocking the public release of a planning document prepared a few years ago for dealing with disasters such as hurricanes.

Puerto Rico’s role in preventing public scrutiny was disclosed Tuesday at an oversight hearing held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the federal response to the 2017 hurricane season.

“Until Puerto Rico agrees for it to be released, it can’t be released to the general public,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman, said at the hearing.

Johnson’s comment came in response to questions from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., about an Oct. 25 story by Pro Publica about its unsuccessful attempts to obtain the document from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA originally agreed to release the document, which is called the Hurricane Annex of the Region II All Hazards Plan, but reversed its decision, Pro Publica reported.

“Due to the potentially sensitive information contained within the Hurricane Annex of the Region II All Hazards Plan, there are legal questions surrounding what, if any, portions of the annex can be released,” FEMA told Pro Publica. “As such, the documents that you seek must be reviewed and analyzed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by FEMA.”

Pro Publica found a similar plan for Hawaii publicly posted on the Internet.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long told senators that a copy of the Puerto Rico All Hazards Plan was given to the committee Monday evening.

Long declined to rate numerically how his agency has performed in response to the catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico, suggesting instead that the senators question the island’s mayors.

But Long received bipartisan praise from senators for the way his agency has handled multiple disasters in recent weeks.

Senators, however, had questions about the decision of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to not seek mutual aid from other power companies immediately after the storm struck.

"We are all concerned why Puerto Rico chose not to use mutual aid,’’ said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

Utilities in other states were reluctant to engage in help unless they were paid 100% up front, said Major General Donald Jackson, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer.

That only changed after the federal government waived the requirement for a local cost share, he said.

The FEMA administrator also said his agency was not responsible for the contract for up to $300 million in utility work that PREPA signed with a small firm from Whitefish, Mont.

“There is no lawyer at FEMA who ever would have agreed to it,” Long said. “As I understand, not one dollar has gone from FEMA for that contract.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has announced the contract is being canceled.

Officials from the governor’s office did not respond to emails from The Bond Buyer asking why the territorial government is blocking release of the hurricane planning document.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Hurricane Maria Hurricane Harvey Hurricane Irma Washington DC